Tuesday, April 15, 2014

That Demon Within: Spooky Action from Dante Lam

This is a haunted film on many levels. It is loosely inspired by the case of Tsui Po-ko, the notorious cop-killing HK cop, who launched a one man crime-spree. His unquiet ghost hangs over the film, alongside the Demon King and other traditional malevolent spirits, whom the film’s villains periodically invoke. Yet, within the film itself, a highly strung police constable may or may not be tormented by ghosts from his past. Yet, he might somehow still bring a desperate criminal gang to justice in Dante Lam’s That Demon Within (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The thoroughly by-the-book Dave Wong is so unpopular with his colleagues he has been banished to the night watchman’s booth in a major hospital. Raised by his pathologically strict father to do the righteous thing in any circumstance, he automatically agrees to give blood when a critically injured O-negative patient arrives. It turns out his transfusion saved Hon Kong, a.k.a. the Demon King, the leader of demon-mask wearing “Gang from Hell.” Inspector “Pops” Mok is not exactly thrilled by Wong’s act of compassion, because Hon had just killed two of his men in a raid gone bad.

When the eerily resourceful Hon escapes, Wong concludes it is his destiny to capture the ringleader and the rest of his gang. However, when Hon’s accomplices turn against him, there might be an opportunity for the Demon King and his nemesis to forge a narrow alliance. At least Hon seems to think so.

Lam is one of the top action directors in the world, so it is no shock that he stages some impressive shootouts. However, his flair for creepy ambiance and ambiguous psychological suspense is a happy surprise (if by happy you mean dark and ominous). Eventually, he mostly resolves the open question of how much skullduggery may be ascribed to supernatural agencies versus everyday criminal evil, but one thing is certain: karma is absolutely merciless.

If you need a wiry hardnose, it is tough to beat Nick Cheung, who is especially steely as Hon. Better known as a romantic lead, Daniel Wu has played the odd psycho before, rather overdoing the twitch in Shinjuku Incident, for instance. However, even when he completely loses it, he keeps Wong clearly tethered to his tragic past, thereby maintaining viewers’ investment quite compellingly throughout the ensuing chaos. This is largely a two-man show, but Astrid Chan adds a note of authority as the psycho-therapist enlisted to treat Wong by his sympathetic superior officer.

In Demon, Lam stages plenty of well lit, intricately choreographed action sequences, but also takes us on an atmospheric tour of the graveyards and condemned tenements of Kowloon. Tense and moody, it is recommended for multiple genre enthusiasts and fans of the superstar co-leads when it opens this Friday (4/18) in New York at the AMC Empire, from China Lion Entertainment.